I happened to know about Jørgen Randers‘ report published by Club of Rome through journalist Santi Agra who recently made me an interview for an article about Degrowth movement for a Galician news site.
Before I begin my critique I must say that I haven’t read Randers’ book and what I’m going to say about it is enterely based on the recent exclusive interview with its author published on Transition Culture website.
Randers’ proposals to fix the environmental trouble which affects Humanity are so dangerous that I couldn’t but to make this urgent personal comment on them, as a more permanent and extended continuation of my comments below that TransitionCulture.org post. They are even more dangerous because they come from a scientist who has gained much prestige from previous and seminal works done with Dennis & Donella Meadows, i.e. the Limits to Growth series, a must-read for any activist or polititian worried about the compatibility of economic growth and planetary limits. The danger is even greater because an organization like the Club of Rome has based a strong campaign on it, called The Count-Up to 2052: An Overarching Framework for Action.
We must be grateful to the Club of Rome for having funded and launched such an important work as Limits to Growth in 1972, but time has passed and that think-tank is not quite what it was 40 years ago. Now we must be very worried because they are giving support to such proposals as getting rid of Democracy with the excuse that it’s an obstacle to sustainability.
I’ll make an analysis of Randers’ words in that interview so we can understand what is real meaning of his report. I must warn that I won’t make a critique of his forecasts but only one about his ideological proposals, which put him quite apart of the Limits to Growth conclusions made with the Meadows in the past. This doesn’t mean that I agree in any way with those forescasts, which in a first glance seem quite unrealistic and technoutopists (cornucopians) to me, as if they weren’t taking into account the entropic predicament we’re in.
Randers is mentioned in the interview to have said:
democracy will not solve these problems, we need a paradigm shift in governance
And in the TC interview he adds this:
(…) society, modern society as we know it, is extremely short term. It is finely tuned to a maximise short-term benefits, in some cases at the cost of future problems, and the two major institutions of today are of course democracy on the one side and capitalism on the other side.
Most people do accept that capitalism is short term (…) Then you could say that to be able to regulate capitalism in such a way that from the point of view of the capitalists it is most profitable to do the right thing, what is socially beneficial as opposed to what is profitable, and yes, this is true, and this is of course what we’re trying when we’re trying to introduce a price on carbon, a price on climate gas emissions, it basically means that one is trying to make it less profitable to run coal-fired power plants and more profitable to run windmills and things like this. But there you see the short-term nature of democracy emerges as the real problem, because when you try to pass legislation which makes fuel or power more expensive in the short term, most people don’t vote for those politicians.
In a democratic society it is very difficult to get the frame conditions around business decisions in such a way that businesses start to do what is socially beneficial rather than what is short-term profitable. The basic problem is that neither the capitalist machinery nor democratic society puts enough emphasis on our grandchildren’s benefits, and consequently we are basically doing things today that are for our benefit that will cost our children and particularly our grandchildren a lot. This is not necessary, it could easily have been done in a different manner, the technology exists, the costs are low, but because of the short-term nature of democracy and capitalism it won’t be done. This is my main message.
how in the world do you then make democratic society pass such legislation? That is of course the big deal, and you should then start by asking if it is at all conceivable that democratic society delegates authority to someone over or beyond them in the sort term in order to achieve long-term good, and the answer is yes, dictators in Rome were appointed for a limited period of time, to be able to pass rapid technocratic decisions when Rome was challenged. Another more interesting modern example is of course the central bank, which is an institution invented by democratic society where parliament basically delegates to someone else to pass the situation on, how much money to print and many democratic societies have chosen to do so, to run monetary policy at arm’s length.
where democracy is working and has been working for 50 years […] still there is not a single tendency that there is a majority of the voters that is in any way interested in sacrificing anything in the short term in order to help our children in the long term.
I think Randers is completly missing the point, as he based his thesis in the believe that the short-termism of present capitalist parliamentary systems (which he calls democracies) is an inherent problem of democracy itself. Instead, I believe this is a symptom that our democratic systems are not truly democratic. A true Democracy is a political system in which the power is in the hands of people, and this is very far away of the actual functioning of western parliamentary systems. Representative democracy is not a real democracy because this supposed representation of people will is so full of interferences (mainly mediatic and economical) that is not an effective representation. I tried to illustrate that misrepresentation in some graphics and articles on D3 site, even through a systems analysis view, which is the academical field of Mr. Randers.
I wonder how a man like Randers, which has been most of his life experiencing which are the real obstacles for social proposals to make his way through parliamentary systems (he worked many years with WWF for example), could actually think that these are real democracies. I must conclude that he is pretending, and wants to pass the idea that these are the only democratic systems possible, and that they are real democracies and so we must agree that democracies are bad for our future because its present systemic failures are unavoidable. But he is hiding the fact that they are other ways, that (greatly) participatory and (mostly) direct democractic systems make a true democracy possible. If you remove the misrepresentation done by capitalist-controlled political parties, the economical lobbying which makes governments rule against the will of the citizens that ellected them, if you change the mediatic oligopoly so we can have a plural, indepedent, diverse media panorama composed of citizen-controlled public TVs, radios, newspapers and websites that truly inform people of the nature of the problems… then we could have a real democracy that would very probably pass all the legislation needed to avoid ecocide. In 2002 Meadows and Randers identified a transformation in the information system as a requisite for sustainability-oriented revolution: when information flux changes, that makes system change, and they even mentioned a clear recent historical example of this: glasnot period in the former USSR. Now Randers hides this systemic information failure of democracies under the carpet and puts the blame on the disinformed people, i.e. he transforms consequence in cause. We must recall that III Antropological Revolution which Meadows and Randers talked about in their third update (2002) to Limits to Growth and that it took 10 years to Randers to send it to the paperbin. Now he even says that we shouldn’t teach our children to love wilderness because there won’t be any left. That’s an intelligent and useful position or a receipt for a self-fulfilling prophecy?
He even dares to say:
it’s much better that they get to love computer games and virtual reality of which there will be a lot over the next 40 years than try to love the untouched, quiet surroundings of which there will be much less sadly.
What an incredible quote for a former ecologist! Besides, it’s very unrealistic that we are going to have such a techno-gadgets society after peakoil and after EROI cliff makes net energy available to humanity fall under the minimum required to sustain an industrial society.
Not only Randers spreads a wrong (and I think interested) vision of what democracy is, but also of capitalism and its effects on society values and culture:
It is not capitalist society which is doing it. It is basically the forest owners and in our country there are tens and tens and tens of thousands of those who much prefer to have another hundred pounds in the bank than to have a good looking old-growth forest standing next door.
If there are some owners with such a mentality and short-term values we must recognize it is a capitalistic mentality. Change of values propelled by capitalism and its mediatic arm (mainly marketing industry) has induced this kind of mentality changes in many rural people in its own interest during the historical process of industrialization. Capitalist economy needs people to think this way so they become consumers and workers and abandon simple mainly self-sufficient rural lifes in balance with the environment they have depended on for uncountable generations. So it is not capitalist society which is doing it? Randers should have the historical and sociological knowledge not to do this sort of misinterpretation os economical behaviour. Or maybe he has the correct knowledge but wants to transmit a different story. We interpret and even shape reality through stories, as The Dark Mountain manifesto remindes us, so we should be very careful with the stories we tell other and ourselves. Besides he consciously hide the other side of the story: the millions of people all over the World who still live their lifes outside capitalist mentality and mechanisms: the traditional ways of common property of forests, for example.
We’re not so stupid as to massively and consciently commit suicide. If truly informed would we chose to kill our planet and leave a worst future for our children? Randers may be so burn-out after so many years of fighting for a future that he might think so or he may have just missed the vision of real obstacles to avoid it. Or else we could think he is just trying knowingly to mislead people and goverments. His apparently anticapitalist position might be a way of pretending as well, because even right-wing informed people knows that capitalism as we know it is going to end when growth becomes impossible, so they well might try to make virtue from necessity and say “Well, OK, capitalism is bad… so let’s set up a different system”. But because they say in parallel that democracy is also bad, it’s clear that theirs is not a left-wing (anticapitalist) position but one of far-right ideology. I think they (Club of Rome, Randers and others) are trying to sell this eco-dictatorship idea as a strategy to preserve the privileges of the same capitalist elite which would then be reborn as neofeudalist elite or some other post-capitalist form of dominant class. If you remove democracy, people won’t have any means to decide their future. We might have now a pseudodemocracy with a lot of failures that is sending us in a way over the cliff… but the reason for this is that they are political systems in which citizens are wrongly informed and in which they have no real power to decide. So what would we need – less or more democracy?
This, of course, would not be easy to achieve, because we have many cultural obstacles (bigger in a country like Spain with a poor democratic culture)… some of them we’re clearly pointed out by William Catton in Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change as cultural lag, for example, or pickpocket mentality (a form of capitalist individualistic mentality). And we have the tragedy of the commons, also. But all this does not mean that democracy is the problem and (eco-friendly?) dictatorship or technocracy is the answer.
An ecological economist told me not much time ago, talking about the political prospects for the post-peakoil future, that scarcity would surely be managed via authoritarian regimes. Of course the present (mis)representative systems are showing that they were only viable in the growth, abundance era in which a greater and greater pie could be distributed peacefully among the capitalist class and the ones below them. But in these times of forced degrowth and progressive collapse they are removing the poorly democratic mechanisms and the partial Welfare State that supported that social temporary peace. Here in Spain we are having lots of proofs of this changes, and of the lack of democracy. Not in vain a main branch of the Indignados movement is called Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now). We have experienced the falseness of our leaders who only allocate (our) money to save banks and big business and not for social expenditures. We see how our dimishing resources are dedicated to build unsustainable and unnecessary frameworks only to transfer public wealth in an accelerated way to the accounts of the big companies. We have watched in despair how our Constitution has been changed in a hurry and without a referendum just to satisfy the greed of financial powers. We see each and every day that the media hides the side of reality that economical powers don’t want people to know. Chomsky showed quite time ago that social and political consent (you can say, the public opinion) is fully manufactured in these mediatical political systems, and that the supposed opposition of Democrats and Republicans (in the US) or PP and PSOE (in Spain) or (put here the names of the main parties in most western countries) are just the two sides of the same coin, the two heads of the same monster, doing some theatrical shows to feed the media with apparent pluralism and to mark the allowed scope of alternatives, when it’s fully demonstrable that in practice they apply most of the time the very same politics.
Transition movement, Indignados and Occupy movements and all progressive and social-ecological activists must be warned about this anti-democratic offensive and this new strategy of the real powers behind the curtain. When they appear to base their proposals on science and they lean on formerly-prestigious names like Randers, we should firmly step forward and reveal their (now-not-so) hidden agenda against people’s interest and sovereignty, and propose the really democratic alternative, which could be sketched from points like these:
- More democracy so people can truly decide on environmental subjects and every other aspect of politics. It should be achieved replacing (or profoundly transforming) representative democracy with direct democracy, mainly supported by digital technologies while available.
- A democratic economy that replaces capitalism.
- A degrowth-oriented and ecological approach to that new economical and societal paradigm.
- A liberated media system in the hands of citizens to self-inform us in freedom.
- A relocalized governance (local full autonomy) for a relocalized society and as a support for direct democracy after collapse of technological society.
- A new education system in order to reinstall cultural values and skills needed for a post-industrial society.
- Self-management in all orders of society to achieve self-sufficiency and local direct democracy.